takes a polite sip from the best of vintage teapots
From eggshell to earthenware, your choice of teapot says a lot about you. First of all — you’re still using a teapot. How genteel. So which 20th-century teapots are tops for a beautiful brew?
In terms of pouring out some ancient culture, you couldn’t do better than a Yixing (Yee-zhing) teapot for your Chinese Gong-Fu Cha (this expression for good tea making and the root of “cha”). Yixing pottery is not thrown but has been hand-built and battered since the Neolithic Period using wood and bamboo tools with a very special purple to deep orange clay (Zisha) found to the West of Lake Taihu in Jiangsu province in China.
Yixing teapots appeared somewhere in the Sung or Ming dynasties. Their line was developed through Western consumer demands and the British East India Company in the late 1690s for upper-class drawing-rooms. That bellied shape pot would survive right up to today.
Serious collectors claim that the original clay for these pots has been mined out, and that true Yixing clay is hoarded and locked away by just a few masters in the craft. Prices for rare examples of Yixing run into five and six figures and the occasional multi-million for an exquisite rarity from the early 20th century — a high point for Yixing artistry. If you’re brewing up a serious buy – go to a dedicated collector with a thorough knowledge of identifying stamps for Yixing ware.
Yixing can be quiet and rustic with a swelling gourd-like charm. They can follow traditional Chinese naturalistic motifs like the lotus flower, or appear highly eclectic in organic modern styles like the Flowing pot made famous by potter, Wang Yinxian (1943–2018) and Zhang Shouzhi (b.1932). Yixing has had a lasting influence on teapots from Georgian Staffordshire to today’s studio potters and high street brands.
A true unglazed Chinese teapot is intended for one tea type only, as the tea infuses into the body of the clay as you use it. The thickness of the body and the type of firing is said to influence the tea type. Green tea is better in a thin body fired at a high temperature, black in a thicker walled, low fired pot.
As you use the teapot and handle it, it will take on a patina and it is believed will become more beautiful, personalised and precious. They do appear at auction. Check for chips at the lid edge and on the lid itself and treat older pieces as ornaments only.
If you love that oriental look, but want something durable to just potter around the kitchen, pick up a ‘hobnail’ style iron pot in a low chrysanthemum profile and punch of rich colour by a good maker like the Tetsubin by Snail & Rabbit, €45, snailandrabbit.co.uk. Oliver Bonas has a new line in glass teapots, Tila, lovely for unfurling a flower or gunshot tea, €35, oliverbonas.com and 22 Exchequer St, Dublin.
The work of Swedish maker, Gosta Grahs is receiving a lot of attention and his work features in the Swedish National Museum of Art & Design. Grahs’ gorgeous ceramic bulbous teapots are clearly inspired by early Chinese export forms. Look out for 1980s made pots in simple matt balls with brass wire handles made for the studio of Rorstrand, for sale online and through good 20th-century dealers.
Alessi collectors are not enthusiastic — they are rapid, unhinged and completely dedicated to the latest flash in Italian stainless steel from season to season. For Heaven’s sake they managed to flog an €80 banana holder (the Charlie). The most interesting 20th-century stovetop tea kettle that can function as a teapot has to be Alessi’s Il Conico in stainless steel 18/10. Designed by Aldo Rossi (1931-1997), it was released by Alessi immediately after La Conica coffee maker — an instant icon with its curious secessionist vibe.
Rossi was known for his interest in conical shapes in his architecture, so his pots reflect his wider work, described breathlessly by Alessi as “abstraction, reduction and brevitas — his severe language of primary shapes, geometrical patterns and silent evocation.” Well, I need a strong cup of sugary Barry’s loose-leaf after that heady gush.
The teapot comes in at €180, and with care not to scratch the body with heavy cleaning – it’s a dazzling piece of postmodernism and an ideal heirloom gift for a spring wedding. Look up the work of Naoto Fukasawa for Alessi too. His Cha kettle/teapot (2014) has an exquisitely refined bosomy line and includes a removable infuser, €130, creamer (a must-have); €52, alessi.com.
Clarice Cliff potting in the Newport Pottery in Burslem from the late 1920s delivered a funfair of brightly painted everyday Art Deco ware that is still lovingly collected today. Her extraordinary teapots are a real stand out, matching only the best silver modernist styling of the day in the West, and closely influenced by the star designers and abstract artists of the European and Russian schools including Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935).
A painter who led the Suprematist Porcelain movement, Malevich created some of today’s most valuable pots which poured into his ideas about “irrational space, with its infinite extensibility” — (someone pass me a custard cream). You can find a vintage example of these cubist curiosities in ceramic from about €350 reproduced for Cleto in the early noughties at pamono.eu.
Getting back to the brilliant Clarice, her pots demonstrated her artistic design prowess and commercial confidence as one of the few potting masters in the country. Her conical teapots, most featuring fantasy landscapes like the New York skyline, billowing trees, flowers, Odeon sun-rays and bubbling Broth with their triangular handles and spouts remain breathtaking. Cliff’s work has been faked for decades all over the Near and Far East. Only buy from a reputable dealer, insist on perfection and save up at least €1,500 for a museum quality pot to put straight into a cabinet. Andrew Muir is both a collector and trusted online specialist, andrew-muir.com.
My favourite everyday new pot is a far less flashy little fellow but it recalls those Oriental bellied pots creating as the East to West tea trade steeped the 1700s. The Forlife Stump is a favourite of cafés and restaurants, truck-stops and artisan tea rooms. With its simple pottery body and flip lid — its utilitarian purity and easy handling — Stump simple says home. If you do have a coffee shop to stock, the Stump also stacks as modestly on the counter and comes in a range of comfy colours and finishes. From €34, suppliers include nisbets.ie.
For more on late character pots and the savage advance of the teabag, see my earlier feature here.